Maybe I’m biased because I’m a California native, but I think this state is home to one of the best road trips in the United States, maybe even the world. I know that’s a big statement, but I’ve been on a lot of road trips, and I still stand by this opinion, mainly because California has it all!! I drove through Big Sur’s windy scenic cliffs, went seal-spotting in Monterey, tasted wine and cheese in Napa’s vineyards, and explored every windy road, district, bridge, and whatnot of San Francisco’s city on the bay. I truly don’t believe there’s any other state besides California where you can experience an array of such different places that are equally as beautiful and exciting as the next. Each stop was so unique and so stunning in their own ways and the drives between each place were also incredibly scenic. From passing through sandy shores and pine forests to vineyards and farmland to an industrial coastal city…I finally fully understand why the state of California has so much appeal, and this time not just because of my hometown Los Angeles. This road trip should definitely be on everyone’s bucket list!
Stop #1: Big Sur
Although I didn’t stay in the Big Sur overnight, I can guarantee you the coastal drive through it’s beautiful cliffs is enough to make you fall in love with this place! You must do it before you die…it’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The water has all these different shades of blue that crash against these big boulders and tide pools that line the shores. I think I pulled over 5 different times to take photos and could barely keep my eyes on the road while I was driving, it was that picturesque. Before you reach the sandy beaches, you’re greeted with all types of flowers, succulents, and multicolored grass/moss pastures. My inner nature freak was going crayyyyzy!!!
Stop #2: Monterey
To picture yourself walking around Monterey, think of a charming little California fisherman’s town. The town itself has a very small and quaint feel to it, with a lot of tourist appeal, but without the overwhelmingly present tourist crowd. Beachy bridges connect the streets (see above- this is my best description for these haha, is there a name for these things?) and bougainvillea and roses grow alongside the cute little shops and restaurants. It’s such a charming little beach town with SO much marine life to see, you don’t want to miss this stop!!
Where To Stay:
- Discovery Inn: Just gonna start this off by saying DO NOT stay here if you want a luxury Monterey stay. This place is about 12 minutes inland from Downtown Monterey, which is located on the beach and where you want to spend your time, but also a much more expensive place to stay. That being said, this inn is a good hotel if you’re only looking for the basic road trip hotel essentials: clean bedding, TV, free WiFi, hot water, air conditioning, and free breakfast for $75/night. I’ll be honest, the decor is a bit unsettling (you won’t want to spend your time here), but we were only in our room to sleep so it didn’t bother us.
- Like I just said, stay by the beach for a nicer, more conveniently located hotel, but prepare to pay at least $175+ per night.
Where To Eat: Note, I was only here a day, but here’s what I tried/wanted to try…
- Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen & Bar– Amazing seafood located right on the beach, so it had great views of the water! Pricey though for this reason.
- Hula’s Island Grill– #1 on TripAdvisor. Supposedly has great Hawaiian food, seafood, happy hour deals, and vegetarian options with a cool tiki room vibe.
What To Do:
- Simply walk around the town and the fisherman’s wharf and take pictures! You’ll find lots of like-minded tourists doing the same.
- You MUST visit the seals in the marina where the sailboats are (to the right of downtown if you’re facing the water). It was so incredible getting to watch them swim around the bay, catch fish, sunbathe, and bark at each other. I gained a new appreciation (AKA obsession lol- you’ll be able to tell by my numerous photographs coming up) for seal lions that day!!
- Go kayaking or paddle boarding! I didn’t get to do this but there were TONS of people doing it.
- Scuba dive if that’s your thing. Also TONS of people doing this (a sign of good diving with lots of marine life to see!).
- Go whale watching! I WISH I got to do this because there were SO many whales off the coast of Monterey while I was there. Everything from humpbacks to orcas!
Stop #3: Napa Valley
If you’ve never been to Napa, I’m sure you’ve already heard the hype surrounding it. When driving around, you’re surrounded by so many lush vineyards that go for miles and miles, which inevitably make you super excited for some wine tasting. My boyfriend and I came solely for that, but ended up discovering there’s so much more to Napa than the wine! There’s great restaurants, the cutest, most quaint towns surrounding the city, and really friendly people everywhere you go!
Where To Stay:
- Wine Valley Lodge: Located 2 miles from downtown Napa, this place was central to all the best wineries (only 5-15 minute drives) for a great, low price ($120/night) compared to other hotels in the area. The looks of it from the outside are nothing special (think woodsy and rustic), but the rooms have everything you need: big beds, air conditioning, cleanliness, TV, free WiFi, hot water, etc. Plus, the staff was super friendly and resourceful- they’ll help you with recommendations, directions, anything. It’s not a luxury stay, but if you’re looking to do Napa on a budget, then this place is perfect! My thoughts are- save your money on the room and spend it on the wineries! This philosophy proved to be very successful for my boyfriend and I.
Where To Eat/Drink & What To Do: I’m combining this section because everything you do in Napa has so much to do with food and wine! They’re interchangeable.
- Go wine and cheese tasting (obviously!): We went to the Domaine Carneros vineyard, which was beautiful, but I’ve honestly heard that any winery in Napa is amazing. Some pros of choosing this place is: the beautiful chateau, wine tasting on the porch, great sparkling wines, reds, and cheese, affordable prices (we had 2 wine tastings each, 1 cheese pairing, and a bottle of rose for only $50 each) and freedom to explore the vineyard on your own. The cons are: it’s located next to a road with several cars driving by (we had to specifically ask for a table that had a view of just the vineyard because some tables you can see the road) and their lack of selection of white wines.
- I strongly recommend going to Napa on a Tuesday if you can, because the nighttime farmer’s market in Sonoma (about 15 minutes from Napa) made our whole trip. I’ve been to countless farmer’s markets and this was hands-down my favorite I’ve ever been to.
- The town itself has this old-time feel- it’s almost like time stands still there. You’ll feel like you’re time-warped back to California wine country in the 30s. SO cute and quaint.
- The market has everything you could ever ask for- more wine tastings, fresh produce from the surrounding vineyards and farmland (literally just miles away), live music, and amazing hot and cold food options. It’s located in Sonoma Plaza, this town square/park, which is just as cute and charming as its surrounding town.
- Tip: Buy the oysters here! They were incredibly fresh and went perfect with the rose we brought with us from the vineyard.
- There’s lots of cute bars and restaurants just steps away from the park that you can walk to after. We went to an irish pub after called Murphy’s, which seemed to be where all the locals were hanging and was super fun!
- To cure your hangover the next day, head to La Taquiza Fish Tacos for amazing & fresh fish tacos for a really great price.
Domaine Carneros Chateau
Murphy’s Irish Pub
La Taquiza Fish Tacos
Stop #4: San Francisco
San Francisco is incredible!! Not only is it situated right on the bay, there’s so much to do here, so much to see, so much to eat (I ate my way through this place), and so much artistic beauty everywhere you go! The architecture is a mix between Victorian buildings/houses and modern skyscrapers. It was actually much more city-like than I was expecting, especially due to the buzz that you feel everywhere you go (lots of people and cars everywhere). I could definitely see myself living here one day…
Where To Stay:
- Beware- SF is expensive!! We finally found a place that was affordable for our 3 night stay in a great area called America’s Best Value Inn in SoMa for $180 a night (you will not find anything cheaper than this unless you stay in a crap hotel or outside of the city). This place was centrally located in the South of Market district as it’s a 10-15 minute drive to all the places you want to be, walking distance to major shopping areas, and in a district that is home to tons of great restaurants. They have valet, free WiFi, nicely decorated rooms, air-conditioning, hot water, and every other basic requirement you may need. I would recommend this place to anyone who’s looking to visit SF on a budget.
Where To Eat/Drink:
- Water Bar: Pricey, but worth it for the great seafood and view of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (see below for pictures). The one thing I didn’t like about this place was the overwhelming buzz of businessmen (my boyfriend and I are in our early twenties and felt a bit out of place), but the amazing food and great service made up for it.
- Plant Cafe Organic: AMAZING healthy chain in SF. Had the best vegan spring rolls and smoothie here at its Marina location before we walked the Golden Gate bike path along the beach.
- Tonga Room: Pricey tiki room/bar in Nob Hill, but SO worth it. Recommended by Anthony Bourdain for their great asian-fusion food, huge fishbowl cocktails, live floating band that plays in the middle of the restaurant, and fake rain that comes and goes throughout your meal (no you don’t get wet, it falls into the center “pool”!). It truly feels like you’ve been transported to some boozy, tropical destination and is so entertaining. SF is known for its assortment of tiki bars and this is definitely one worth checking out.
- Marlowe: Trendy American restaurant in SoMa. Great reviews and you’ll see why.
- Buritt Room and Tavern: Romantic, trendy restaurant with great small plates and cocktails. There’s a live jazz band playing by the bar and the decor has this old, glamorous appeal. Pricey for small portions, but great-tasting and great atmosphere, especially for a date night.
- La Taqueria: AMAZING, authentic Mexican burritos for cheap. Located in Mission, which appeared to have the best variety of authentic ethnic food. Be prepared to wait in line.
- The Warming Hut: Perfect cafe for coffee and snacks located along the Golden Gate bike/walking bath, right on the shore. Outside is the best location to take photos of the bridge.
- Top of the Mark: Swanky, old-hollywood style bar located at the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in Nob Hill. Older crowd, probably due to their expensive prices and live jazz band, but had a great 360 degree view of SF.
- Tunnel Top: Really fun dive bar with artsy decor playing classic old-school 90s rap and music videos on the wall.
- All the bars along the Fisherman’s Wharf pier: A lot of these places have nice views of the marina/docks + happy hour deals.
Places I researched and wanted to try, but didn’t get to: This deserves it’s own section because I did so much quality research that should be put to use + these places have GREAT reviews!!
- Tony’s Pizza Napoletana: Supposedly the best pizza/italian food in the city. Come early or super late to beat the crowds though because this place doesn’t take reservations.
- Delicious Dim Sum: Incredibly cheap and authentic dim sum located in the famous Chinatown district.
- Zero Zero: Amazing American restaurant with great pizza, pasta, small plates, and wine.
- CREAM: Supposedly the best ice cream sandwiches in SF!
- Causwells: If you love burgers, come here. My BF was telling me their burger made it to the finals in some nationwide vote, and placed second, so it must be incredible.
- Jones: Really cool rooftop bar I wish I could’ve visited that my best friend told me about (get the sparkle pony cocktail she says :P). Has a great view of SF Victorian architecture.
OK I’M DONE WITH FOOD/DRINKS!! I told you I ate my way through SF…
Waterbar Oysters and Seared Ahi Tuna
Plant Cafe Organic
Tonga Room Live Floating Band
Tonga Room’s “Scorpion Bowl”- Drink w/ Caution!!
Bao (amazing) + Crab Tacos (we didn’t like the tacos)
La Taqueria Burrito
Top of the Mark Decor + Elevator
Things To Do:
- Walk along the Golden Gate bike/walking path that lines the beach. Great photo ops and scenery of the bridge/beach. You can also walk across the bridge itself, but I liked this walk better.
- Visit the beautiful Palace of the Arts and feed the swans/ducks swimming in the pond surrounding it (also keep an eye out of turtles and rare bird sightings!).
- Explore the famous Chinatown!
- Visit the Fisherman’s Wharf for drinks, the arcade, merry-go-round, fresh-caught seafood, seal-watching (Pier 39), and other touristy fun (but be prepared for the crowds, especially on weekends).
- Take a sunset cruise! This was such a fun way to see the city from the water. We sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and got to see the Alcatraz deserted prison while drinking some beers (bring a jacket though and wear pants, it gets SO cold and windy as the sun sets). You can either pay for a nice catamaran to take you around (~$75, book in advance) or go on one of the huge iron ships for cheaper ($30 and can be bought last-minute at the kiosks around the pier).
- Go shopping on Market Street at the big commercial malls and retailers or in the Marina District for more boutiques and smaller, but well-known chains. I preferred the latter, but that’s just my forte.
- Go to one of the many awesome museums in the area- Exploratorium, Walt Disney Family Museum, The Original Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory Museum, Asian Art Museum, etc.
- Rent bikes to explore the city (and beat the slow traffic!).
- Visit the necessary SF landmarks- Lombard Street (the “crookedest” street in the world), the Painted Ladies (Full House anyone?), etc.
- Bring a picnic and some wine to Mission Dolores Park– the big grassy rolling hills where everyone comes to hang on sunny days. A lot of young people come here for some day drinking, but it’s not actually legal, so don’t go drinking openly in front of cops!!
- Visit the town of Sausalito– looks like a fisherman’s town with “floating homes” on the water.
- Visit Marin Headlands– beautiful state park with hiking, surfing, and a great photo op of the Golden Gate Bridge + the city of SF.
- Explore the artsy Haight-Ashbury district with tons of colorful murals on every block.
- Go on a food tour, walking tour, architecture, wine-tasting tour (try Napa wine without paying to go to Napa), historical tour, Segway tour- you get the idea, they have lots of these!
Golden Gate Bike/Walking Path
Palace of the Fine Arts
Fisherman’s Wharf Farmer’s Market
Fisherman’s Wharf Merry-Go-Round
Pier 39 Seals
Alcatraz Prison at Sunset
Old Sign Outside Alcatraz
The Painted Ladies
Marin Headlands State Park
I hope this CA road trip guide gave you some ideas and/or a rough outline for your next California road trip! Comment below or email me with any additional questions/comments you may have. I’d love to hear your feedback and even hear your suggestions for my next visit!!